AMMAN // A summer festival featuring popular Arab singers and international celebrities has drawn the ire of Jordanian political parties and Islamists over the alleged involvement of an advertising company that was reported to have organised Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations this year. Jordan's professional associations, dominated by Islamists, have called for the musicians and stars to boycott the event.
But the ministry of tourism and the Jordan Tourism Board, the bodies overseeing the cultural event, deny they had solicited the co-operation of the French company, Publicis Groupe, a leading advertising and communication firm that has a presence in Israel. The company has also denied any involvement in the festival or that it organised Israel's celebrations. Maha Khatib, Jordan's minister of tourism, said the ministry has contracted another French company called Les Visiteurs du Soir to help with bringing in singers and artists for the festival that will run from Tuesday to Aug 9.
"We asked several companies that are experts in the field of event organisation and Publicis Groupe was just one of a list of specialised companies that told us about several companies specialised in holding festivals ? We were provided with a long list of companies and we found that Les Visiteurs du Soir was the best option," she told the Jordan Times last week. Despite the confusion, the suspicions have already cast a shadow on the festival in a country that signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1994, the second Arab country after Egypt. The majority of Jordan's 5.8 million population, 50 per cent of whom are of Palestinian origin, are against normalised relations with Israel.
Several Arab artists in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria had initially agreed to boycott the festival, but Nasser Judeh, Jordan's minister of state for media affairs and communications, said some have since retracted their decision after realising Publicis Groupe was not involved. A spokesman for the Jordan Tourism Board also said none of the Arab singers, including Amr Diab, an Egyptian pop star, and Elissa, a Lebanese singer, had pulled out. "They were first considering [boycotting], but now, when they got the accurate information from us, everything is on track," she said.
Maysara Malas, head of the freedoms public committee at the Jordan Engineering Association, said the unions were against the festival because of the involvement of Publicis Groupe. "The government has asked Publicis Groupe, chaired by Maurice Levy, to guide them to other companies, which means that they have a role in the preparations of the Jordan Festival," he said. "The Jews have always had a role to provide guidance. And the artists they nominated have strong ties with the Zionists," he alleged, in reference to some of the international singers.
In a sit-in on Sunday night in front of the ministry of tourism to protest against the festival, participants raised banners outlining their opposition. "No to the Zionism of culture and arts," read one banner, while others urged the government to cancel the event. Fakher Daas, a member of the Popular Unity Party, one of five opposition political parties, said: "If the government does not cancel the festival, it will only indicate how successive governments are drawn into normalising ties with Israel despite the popular, cultural and professional associations rejection to this project."
But Jordan's King Abdullah II criticised the campaign against the festival, which he said was based on false information. "Let us assume for a moment that it is in fact Publicis that is helping to organise the event. In fact, I cannot think of a major company that doesn't do business with Israel. If all these companies are off limits, then we are in deep trouble," King Abdullah told the Petra news agency on Tuesday.
"For example, Intel, whose chips power 80 per cent of computers around the world, has billions of dollars of investments in Israel. Its closest competitor, AMD, also has large investments in Israel. Does that mean we should throw our computers away? This is nonsense. "If we follow this line of thought, then we will be doing the best service to Israel. All it has to do is use the best technology and best talent in the world and automatically it would be off-limits to us," he said.
Arab countries offered Israel normalised relations at a summit in Riyadh last year based on a 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, in return for withdrawal from Arab lands. But Mr Malas said: "There will not be any normalisation with the Jewish state unless a Palestinian state is established from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea." Such statements reflect a gap between the popular sentiment on the street and the stance of the government. Even after 14 years of peace between Jordan and the Jewish state, Israel is seen as an occupying force in the Palestinian territories, and there is a stigma attached to normalised relations with Israel, analysts said.
On the 60th anniversary of Israel's creation, Jordanian hotels refused to host the Israeli Embassy celebrations, a step that was hailed by the Jordanian opposition parties. "There has never been any support to normalisation with Israel. Jordanians did not normalise ? people felt that any measure taken by the government in the direction of normalisation is against their will," Labib Qamhawi, an analyst, said.
"Not only Jordanians, but Arabs at large feel that they should not normalise with Israelis as long as they are determined not to give the Palestinians their lawful rights." Mr Qamhawi also said the general mood in Israel was not for peace. "As long as this is the case there will not be normalisation at all. There will be general anger among the Arabs that while we gave the Israelis so many things, we have never gotten anything in return for the Palestinians," he said.
* With additional reporting by Amena Bakr @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org